Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island provides a scenic view.
Photo Credit: Destination BC/Tom Ryan
It's all in the details at Tofino's Wolf in the Fog.
Salmon. Think about British Columbia’s cuisine, and the silvery, pink-fleshed fish is likely what springs to mind. And it’s true, the salmon here is delicious, whether it is a meaty sockeye or a delicate pink, or whether it is planked or poached, seared or smoked. But there’s a lot more to dining here than just one fish.
Photo Credit: Destination BC/Stay & Wander
From seaside to mountaintop and the verdant valleys in between, British Columbia is a place of abundance, where the ingredients are as varied as the culinary traditions of the people who live here. The landscape feeds our hunger for beauty, for adventure and for good things to eat, and each region has its own unique local flavours.
Here are just a few to savour.
Sea to Sky
Caught between sea and sky are British Columbia’s two biggest cities, Vancouver and Victoria, and its most international mountain resort, Whistler. These are sophisticated urban centres perched right on nature’s edge. Ocean, forest, mountains and fields lie just beyond the community boundaries — indeed, sometimes, within them. It’s little wonder, then, that the farm-to-table movement is so widely celebrated here.
Credit Vancouver’s John Bishop, owner of Bishop’s in Kitsilano, and Sinclair Philip, owner of Sooke Harbour House just outside Victoria, for launching the “eat local” movement back in the 1980s. They introduced diners to local delicacies such as fresh spot prawns, savoury pine mushrooms and fragrant wild greens. And they inspired a whole new generation of chefs hungry for local ingredients.
In Vancouver, that includes Andrea Carlson of Burdock & Co. and Chris Whittaker of Forage, who look just up the road to the fertile Fraser Valley to fill their tables with nature’s bounty. In Victoria, Ali Ryan of Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub draws on fresh produce from the nearby Cowichan Valley for her elevated pub grub. And the surrounding waters provide everything from sea salt and fin fish to the briny bivalves chef James Walt serves at Whistler’s Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar, where he also sources organic potatoes and grass-fed beef from nearby Pemberton.
Chefs and diners throughout this region are equally passionate about protecting its fields, forests and waters. Vancouver especially is a hot spot for sustainable dining — this is, after all, the city that spawned Greenpeace, the 100 Mile Diet and Ocean Wise, the nationwide sustainable seafood program.
But there’s another key ingredient to the city’s dining scene: its expert fusion of European and Asian flavours.
Located as it is on the edge of the Pacific Rim, Vancouver has long welcomed newcomers from across Asia, and has joyfully embraced their culinary traditions. That includes the cool Japanese beauty of Hidekazu Tojo’s sushi, the exotic Indian fragrance of Vikram Vij’s curries and the modern cuisine David Gunawan at Farmer’s Apprentice is weaving from the strands of Asian and European traditions.
Hungry visitors can get a taste of Vancouver’s food scene by exploring the Granville Island Public Market or joining a Vancouver Foodie Tour; in Victoria, a pub crawl aboard the Victoria Harbour Ferries is as quintessential an experience as afternoon tea at The Empress or noshing your way through the foodie shops along Fort Street. Meanwhile, in Whistler, there’s no more delicious way to end a day of skiing or biking than with a slope-side fondue or a visit to the vodka tasting room at Bearfoot Bistro.
For millennia, the Coastal First Nations fished and traded up and down this coastline.
This is a land of rain and mists, of endless storm-tossed ocean and dark, mysterious forests. Those waters and those woods are also full of delicious things to eat: halibut, spot prawns, Dungeness crab, gooseneck barnacles and salmon, as well as wild mushrooms, berries and fiddleheads. This is a land of fishers and foragers, where chefs come to play with ingredients they can find nowhere else.
One of those chefs is Nicholas Nutting, formerly of the celebrated Wickaninnish Inn and now leading the kitchen at Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog. At the Wick, he followed the path forged by chef Rodney Butters. When the inn opened in 1996, Butters established its philosophy of sourcing as locally as possible. Now chefs like Nutting happily assume their ingredients will come from a fisher unloading his crab pots on the dock or a guy with a sack of mushrooms knocking at the back door.
Of course, this kind of dining is nothing new to the First Nations peoples who continue to fish and forage as they have done for centuries.
One of the best places to experience their traditions is on the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Here, if you are lucky, you can sample traditional Haida fare like “k’aaw,” a delicacy of dried herring roe on kelp. But even if you can’t join a Haida feast, you can still enjoy other local culinary traditions: snack on the sweet smoked salmon called “salmon candy,” cast a line at one of the luxurious fishing lodges and savour life as it was meant to be here on the edge of the continent.
Lakes and Vineyards
In the centre of British Columbia, a wide, fertile valley stretches between the Coastal Range and Rocky Mountains. Here, a series of warm, clear lakes leapfrogs north from the U.S. border and along their shores sprawl bountiful acres of fruit trees and grapevines.
This has always been summer vacation country, a place to swim and sail and houseboat under the hot sun. But it’s also a place to eat and drink some of the best that British Columbia has to offer.
The hills that line the lakeshores are fragrant with cherry, apple and peach orchards, alongside a wealth of vineyards that dot the valley, growing everything from cool-climate Riesling to spicy Syrah on some of the most varied terroir on the planet.
Now, increasingly, some of Canada’s best chefs are hightailing it here to take advantage of the abundance of glorious ingredients. Among them are Cameron Smith and Dana Ewart of Joy Road Catering, who came here on a visit from Ontario and never went home. Their al fresco long-table dinners at God’s Mountain Estate are among the valley’s most coveted dinner reservations.
So, too, are the meals at winery restaurants ranging from the Grapevine Restaurant & Patio at Gray Monk Estate Winery north of Kelowna, to Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek Winery in Oliver in the south Okanagan. One of the best ways to enjoy the food and the wine is to take a cycling tour between wineries, with stops for savoury nibbles along the way.
Wherever you go, all along the valley, chefs take delight in serving up the local bounty and pairing it with exceptional wines, for an experience as delicious as the view.
There’s gold in them thar hills. Also, silver, zinc, tungsten and lead. That’s what drew settlers to the remote and wild Kootenay Rockies back in the 19th century. That, and hope, which is also what attracted the Doukhobors and the draft dodgers, the hippies and back-to-the-landers and countless others seeking refuge in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
With the fortunes they drew from the ground, those early settlers built charming towns like Fernie and Rossland, Nelson and Kaslo. Now, those towns have become hot spots both for outdoors buffs and foodies hungry for great casual cuisine with an international accent and a staunchly ethical, organic approach.
Much of the local cuisine is inspired by Shelley Adams, formerly the cook at Fresh Tracks Café at the Whitewater Ski Resort outside Nelson, who has written a series of trend-setting, internationally flavoured cookbooks that started with 2005’s Whitewater Cooks. Now visitors can end a day of skiing at Fernie with an irresistible bowl of curry, sample authentic Doukhobor borscht in Castlegar, nibble on sushi in Rossland or savour kebabs in Nelson after a day of soaking in the Ainsworth Hot Springs.
At revered eateries such as Bibo and the All Seasons Cafe in Nelson, chefs rely on local ingredients like the award-winning Kootenay Alpine Cheese Co., heirloom garlic (which is celebrated at an annual festival in New Denver), wildflower honey or wines from the Creston area.
In the province’s mountain regions, as with its coastal communities, its rural valleys and its urban centres, wherever you go, you can expect a joyful international fusion of flavours, tempered with local ingredients and a passionately handcrafted esthetic.
For more information on these and other BC producers, visit HelloBC.com/foodandwine. For more on British Columbia's destinations and travel information, visit HelloBC.com.